Tag Archives: Yitro

Rethinking Na’aseh veNishma: First Connect, Then Teach – Yitro 5780

Last week in this space, I spoke about my trip in January with Honeymoon Israel, a program which seeks to reach the least-connected Jews by providing a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel for couples in their first five years of marriage. The program is not about Israel, per se, but uses the visit to Israel primarily as a backdrop to discuss issues of Jewish peoplehood. I spoke also about a featured presenter on the trip, renowned Jewish educator Avraham Infeld, and discussed his framework of the “Five-Legged Table” of the supporting pillars of Jewish peoplehood. Those “legs” are:

  • Memory
  • Family
  • Mt. Sinai
  • Israel
  • Hebrew

What is at least initially missing from this list is an acknowledgment that , historically speaking, an essential statement of what it means to be a part of the Jewish people is the covenant of mitzvot, the opportunities for holiness that are the central framework of Jewish living and our relationship to God.

Framing that in the form of a question: Isn’t our responsibility as Conservative Jews, as those committed to halakhah / Jewish law and to conserving Jewish tradition, to teach Judaism as a religious tradition? How can we define membership in the Jewish people without the classical religious content?

You might say that the “Mt. Sinai” leg of Infeld’s table includes that. That is, when the Israelites stood at Sinai to receive the Torah, as we did symbolically today, and then they say, “Na’aseh venishma,” we will do and we will seek to understand (Ex. 24:7), that they were effectively saying that membership in the Jewish people mandates performance of the mitzvot first. That is, ours is a religious tradition, based on fulfilling the specific behaviors commanded by God. And there are certainly Jewish communities in which everybody is expected to toe the line, halakhically. Through much of our history, we have had a bit of a judgy streak – in the shtetl, to live among the Jews meant to live as Jews do, and if you did not, you were a threat to the fabric of Jewish society. In the Old World, keeping the mitzvot was also about personal security – you were safe with the Jews if you kept our ways. God and the community would protect you.

Avraham Infeld bellowed at the Honeymoon Israel participants that Judaism is not a religion, but a people. A family, as he puts it. He spoke of his own father, who was a proud atheist, but a committed Jew nonetheless. Some members of our Jewish family put on tefillin every morning. Some refrain from eating pork, but see no problem with ordering steak in non-kosher establishments. Some proudly walk down Murray Ave. on Yom Kippur eating bacon double-cheeseburgers. But all are Jews.

While I place myself firmly in the tefillin-every-morning crowd (and I of course want you all to join me there, when you are ready, of course, with a special invitation to those of us who identify as women), I certainly want us all to continue to be included in, and proudly identify as Jews, regardless of our relationship to the mitzvot.

From the World Wide Wrap at JJEP, February 2020

But there are many Jews for whom the very idea of identification with the Jewish community is fraught. There are many of us who have been turned away by our community. There are many who have felt judged, who have been subjected to intolerance, who were made to feel not welcome for various reasons. 

We have pushed people away. Yes, it’s true that some wandered off by themselves, uninspired, uninterested. But many were turned off by the very people who wanted them to stay, by those of us who insisted on drawing hard lines about who is in and who is out, about what was acceptable behavior for a Jew and what was unacceptable. 

Our role, as Conservative Jews in the vibrant center of the Jewish world is to build bridges. To build a bridge from peoplehood to religion and vice versa; to build a bridge from non-engagement to engagement; to connect Jews from different backgrounds and practices to one another. We inhabit a Jewish environment that can be secular and religious; where doubt can live alongside faith; where an academic Torah-as-human-literature can sidle up to Torah-as-history and not be rebuffed. 

When we say, as Rosh Hashanah begins, “Shalom, shalom, larahoq velaqarov, amar Adonai. (Isaiah 57:19),” we mean it. “Greetings, greetings to those who are far and those who are near, says God.” We have to be open to all who are close, and all those who place themselves beyond the outskirts of our community.

My work as a rabbi is to teach Judaism, to connect you, and everybody else, with the lessons of our text, our history, our culture, our rituals. And there are some who think that rabbis should teach to the top, to those who are committed, to the members of our community who are already steeped in Torah, who have already drunk the Talmudic Kool-Aid.

There is a time and a place for that. But whenever I can, I am also going to teach to the uninitiated, to invite in the ones who are she-einam yode’im lish’ol, who do not yet know how to ask. Because those are the people we need to reach.

So how do we do this?

It is easy for us to keep doing what we are doing, and not worry too much about the rest of the Jewish world, to assume that everybody knows what to do when they walk into a synagogue, to assume that our customs and wisdom, and indeed the supreme value of what we do are obvious to all. But they are not. I know this because I hear it all the time: it’s not so easy to enter Beth Shalom if you do not know where the door is, figuratively speaking.

So how do we invite in Jewish and Jewish-adjacent folks while not scaring them off with our commitment to tradition? Although we know that our approach to tradition is decidedly modern, egalitarian, and inclusive, often those who are unaffiliated or who have been turned off by other Jews and Judaism in the past may not see that. How do we welcome them into our community in such a way that they stay?

And the answer is as follows: First connect, then teach.

And this is, you might say, orthogonal to the principle of “Na’aseh venishma,” we will do first, and then we will understand, which has been so essential to Jewish life for our entire history. The traditional model of teaching Jewish religious practice is to teach the mitzvah, the behavior first, with the intent that the understanding will follow.

But for many today, there has to be a preliminary step, and that step is connection. That is the Mt. Sinai moment. That is where God speaks to each of the individuals standing at Mt. Sinai. Anokhi Adonai Elohekha. “I am the Lord your God.” It’s the first Commandment of the Top Ten. And the “your” is singular! The first commandment is about individual relationship.

It is only after this relationship is established that the doing and the understanding can begin.

(Yes, I know that this image from the Sistine Chapel is God and Adam. But it is also a perfect image for the Sinai moment.)

First connect, then teach. The connection must precede Na’aseh venishma. That’s the element of Jewish peoplehood, of family, of Mt. Sinai.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are not going to compromise on the mitzvot part of the equation; we will uphold our standards of Jewish practice. What goes on at Beth Shalom will always be kosher, shomer Shabbat, and so forth.

But we also have to take the first commandment seriously, and read it as, “You’re a part of my family.” Whatever you may have experienced in the past, whether you were turned off by Jewish religious practice or felt judged for your choices or your parents denied you a Jewish education or whatever, you are welcome as a part of our family.

And, to go a step further, I want those who are Jewish-adjacent, i.e. not privileged to have been born Jewish or yet joined the Jewish people, but having the hutzpah to have married a Jew, to think of themselves as a part of our family as well.

A brief coda: I received an email this past week from one of the Honeymoon Israel participants that really made my week, a person who is married to somebody who is not Jewish, who had bad experiences with rabbis and Jewish organizations. And this person expressed gratitude for having been welcomed back, for feeling for the first time like one of the tribe. And I would now not be surprised to see this person cross my orbit again, this time open to learn, open to the idea of belonging, open to the idea of na’aseh venishma

First connect, then teach. Remember that when you are in the building, and as you saunter out as an ambassador for the type of Judaism we live.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/15/2020.)

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Planting Seeds of Dialogue – Yitro 5779

Two decades ago, when I was living in Houston and working at my final job as a chemical engineer, I learned to meditate at a Buddhist temple. Conscious of my Judaism and wary of our tradition’s all-encompassing prohibition of everything to do with idolatry (we read a taste of that in the Ten Commandments today), I made sure that nothing that I was doing could be construed as violating that prohibition.

There was a Burmese monk who was something like the local rabbi, and he would give a little inspirational talk after the meditation hour. One day he told the story of how the Dalai Lama was speaking somewhere in California, and was asked by a member of the audience if he could tell them how to find the quickest path to enlightenment.

The Dalai Lama did not answer the question. He simply started crying.

There is no easy path to enlightenment. It takes work. Years of careful, thoughtful work.

But the wider lesson here is that very few significant things in life are achievable without careful planning and preparation. Consider the moment on Mt. Sinai that we read today, where God begins the revelatory process with Moshe / Moses: this was such a fundamental moment for our ancestors that it required extensive preparation – days of communal and individual purification, and let’s not forget the whole Exodus story which preceded it. Many things needed to be in place before the moment of contact between God and Israel.

I am concerned that our national state of anxiety, coupled with the new tools of social media, have created a climate in which everything happens in an uncontrolled frenzy. Consider the news story that unfolded over the past week about the apparent stand-off between a Native American drummer and a high-school kid by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. An initial video, shared widely and rapidly via social media, seemed to show the teen and his posse mocking the drummer. When other footage surfaced, the picture seemed more complicated, involving an hour or more of prior invective from a couple of Black Hebrew Israelites, who are known to spew hatred at passersby in some cities. (I myself was verbally assaulted on multiple occasions by these guys on the streets of New York.)

standoff

Subsequent analyses of the situation only seemed to muddy the waters, to the point where it is difficult to say who was at fault, who was mocking whom, what the motives of the various parties were at the time. And then as the news cycle turned over and PR firms were hired, the scene became a kind of Rorschach test for the observer.

I concede that I do not know what exactly happened that day. But what concerns me is not only the scene of people from disparate ethnic groups clashing with each other, but also our rush to judgment; our willingness to assume that we knew what was going on from a few seconds of out-of-context video footage. It is almost as if we wanted to see conflict, to point fingers unambiguously. No chance of enlightenment here.

This is just one small example of the many ways in which we are losing patience for the careful, diligent work it takes to understand the other, to effect change, to exert leadership, to get to know somebody, to cooperate across racial or religious or ethnic lines. We have lost interest in intellectual rigor, in authority based in years of experience. And we are all just too darned busy to dig deeper, to create relationships, to foster real discussion.

The second-century CE collection of Jewish wisdom known as Pirqei Avot, verses of the ancestors, tells us the following (4:23):

רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ, וְאַל תְּנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Do not attempt to assuage the anger of your friend while he is angry; do not try to console her at the time when her deceased lies before her.

In other words, don’t try to tell anybody something that they are not ready to hear. Even words of comfort are alienating when the time is not right, when the other person is not able to listen. True communication happens only when both parties are prepared for it.

Last Sunday morning, we featured Beth Shalom member Zack Block in our Lox and Learning series. Zack is the Executive Director of Repair the World Pittsburgh, whose mission is to “make meaningful service a defining part of American Jewish life.” In short, what Repair the World does is to engage Jews in a range of volunteer activities with partner organizations.

One of Repair the World’s activities is maintaining community gardens, and Zack used the example of gardening as a community-building activity. First, he said, you bring people together to plant seeds in pots indoors. You water the seedlings regularly. Some time later, you bring people together again to take the seedlings to the garden and plant them. There is watering and fertilizing and weeding and pruning and all sorts of ongoing maintenance. And then you bring people together again for harvesting, and bringing those fruits and vegetables to food pantries, or to bag them and make them available for nearby residents to take and use, or to host an exciting event with an up-and-coming local chef who can do something brilliant with string beans and eggplant.

seedling

It occurred to me that this is an excellent metaphor for dialogue across political, religious, ethnic, racial, or even gender-based lines. And, since this past Monday was Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which, according to the Talmud, is the new year for the trees, the plant metaphor works well in this season.

This is how diplomacy works: you plant “seeds”; you tend to them, and when the time is right, you “harvest” the solutions, the compromises, the social justice commitments, and then you pass the garden on to your successors.

Let’s acknowledge for a moment that we have guests in our Sanctuary today. Welcome, members of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and a special welcome to the Right Reverend Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of the Diocese. We will have a Q&A with Bishop McConnell and myself and Rabbi Markiz after qiddush (i.e. “collation”), and I hope you will join us for that. We are all in agreement that, particularly in the wake of October 27th, both here in Pittsburgh and across these United States, we are all in need of more communication with people outside of our own circles.

I sometimes feel that we are a nation in retreat: retreating to our own news bubbles, retreating to our comfy armchairs and our Netflix subscriptions, retreating to our own kind, or into ourselves. Where do we see examples of true dialogue in our society today?  Where there was once discussion we see diatribe; where there was once debate we see demagoguery. We are all just screaming to be heard, striving to collect the most “likes,” to achieve the most re-tweeted tweet, to post the most outrageous selfie.

I hope that today we will plant some seeds and mark the beginning of a conversation between our communities, a conversation that will ultimately yield fruit in making meaningful connections across a religious divide. And there are more gardens to plant, conversations to be had – many groups reached out to us following the Tree of Life massacre.

But it will take time. We need to talk. To break bread together. To make small-talk. Only after you have come into our space, and we have come into yours, and you have asked us questions, and we have asked you questions, can we really start to dig deeply and honestly into the difficult issues that we all face. One meeting is not enough.

Just as there is no speedy path to enlightenment, there is no quick way into meaningful dialogue. As with the rabbinic wisdom from Pirqei Avot I cited above, there is no shortcut to being able to enter the truly challenging, but essential, conversations; there is only the garden, in all its labor-intensive greenery.

A final note: the main event of Parashat Yitro (our Torah reading for today) occurred in the reading of the Aseret haDibberot, the Decalogue. But the name of the parashah comes from Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro / Jethro, who is a Midianite kohen, that is, a non-Israelite priest. In the words of Rabbi Sharon Cohen-Anisfeld, president of Hebrew College in Boston:

Yitro embodies a quality of capaciousness – and indeed, his name itself comes from the Hebrew root yeter, or yoter. Abundance. More-than-enoughness. What Yitro embodies here is a quality of big-heartedness. There is more than enough room in his heart to truly rejoice in the blessings of another people.

Like Yitro, we should all have more than enough room in our hearts for our neighbors, for diplomacy, for reaching out and creating the depth of relationship required to achieve honest, heartfelt discussion. That is how we may achieve enlightenment.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/26/2019.)

 

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Standing Together – Yitro 5777

There are days, maybe once a week, when I feel like, “Ah. That was a good day. I accomplished a lot. I engaged with lots of people. I taught some Torah. I helped move this institution forward.”

There are days when I feel like, “Wow. I spent the whole day in meetings and handling logistics and didn’t get anything of significance done. Ouch.”

On the whole, I would say, I feel pretty good about the direction of Beth Shalom, about my work here, about our trajectory as a community. We are building slowly, making connections between people, reaching members and non-members in new and different ways, perhaps raising the bar of qedushah, holiness, in the context of our community.

Every now and then, it’s a good idea to count your successes and acknowledge challenges. Among the successes, I would count the following:

  • Our membership has grown by more than 10% in the past year and a half
  • We have already raised over $700,000 in pledges from members
  • We are halfway through the SULAM for Emerging Leaders program, training 14 members of the community for greater effectiveness as lay leaders
  • We are about to embark on a congregational learning process and re-envisioning of our tefillah, our services, in an attempt to make sure that our tefillah offerings meet our goals in that regard
  • The Shababababa and Shabbat Haverim services, which happened again last night, regularly draw 120 or more participants for joyous family davening in two services and a laid-back Shabbat dinner
  • Our other youth tefillah offerings have been improved dramatically, thanks to the hard work of Rabbi Jeremy Markiz
  • JJEP and the ELC are bursting with kids, energy, and innovation
  • We are launching the Derekh program this summer with a Jewish learning retreat aimed at young adults that will be held in August, and we received a $5000 grant from the Federation’s SteelTree program to run it
  • We have just established a team of volunteers to take responsibility for the sifrei Torah – where they are, to what parashah they are rolled, etc.
  • We are training new gabbaim
  • After more than a year of work and consideration, we are just about to put out a new version of the Benei Mitzvah Handbook with revised policies and information
  • We now have a streamlined, contemporary mission statement

And there are more. I think we can cautiously say that things are going well.

tefillin-hands-jjep

But of course there are also challenges. In particular, there are many things that we just haven’t gotten to yet, perhaps because nobody has stepped forward to help make them happen:

  • We still have no social action committee
  • We still have not been able to plan a congregational trip to Israel
  • We still have no official greeting team
  • There are still daily services when we lack coverage and/or a minyan of attendees
  • Our signage in the building is still, at best, confusing, and I continue to hear reports from people who have difficulty finding their way into the building
  • We are far from implementing an Earth-friendly policy to guide us in use, reuse and recycling in the building

Anybody who would like to help us take on these challenges is welcome!

But in addition to these programming needs, there is a special kind of challenge that we face, a more thorny difficulty that often afflicts synagogues, and that is disagreement.

Not that disagreement is bad! On the contrary, it is healthy and normal. In fact, one might make the case that it is due to disagreement that we are still here as Jews. You see, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, they effectively began the process of “democratizing” Judaism – no more would the priesthood and the Sanhedrin hold all the power. Study and prayer, more personal routes to God and tradition, became the central communal features of Judaism.

But what allowed Judaism to endure and enabled it to survive to this very day, is the ability to maintain civil disagreement.

An oft-quoted Talmudic example of this comes from the two major schools of rabbinic opinion, those of the great rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Yet, despite the fact that their followers disagreed on many points of law and practice, they still married each other’s daughters (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 14a). They maintained a sense of community and togetherness in the face of argument.

Disagreement is fundamental to who we are. But disagreement can be healthy or destructive, and I am more concerned about the latter.

We read in Pirqei Avot (5:19) about the mahloqet leshem shamayim – a controversy for the sake of heaven. The disagreement which furthers the goals of community, connection and qedushah / holiness is a Divine argument that will last forever. The dispute that seeks to self-aggrandize or consolidate power or disrupt the community is NOT leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. This is the destructive form of disagreement.

One of my most beloved teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, taught us that synagogue politics are good. They indicate a thriving organization that consists of engaged members who care. The absence of political disagreements, the shul in which everybody agrees about everything, he said, is a dying shul.

20160620_095719_resized

I have been here now a year and a half. During the first year or so, I was aware of very little in the way of disagreements with my style or my choices or my halakhic opinions. There’s a name for that grace period that new rabbis are usually afforded: the honeymoon.

But now the honeymoon is over.  And just as in any marriage it’s not a bad thing.  It just signals the start of getting down to brass tacks, the sharper points of living in holy matrimony.

So I have to confess something at this point – something which I have not owned up to until now: I am not perfect. (My wife liked that line best.) While I try very hard indeed to make sure that I am serving this community as best I can, I have occasionally let myself and others down. And that is hard, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist – I want things to be right.

And yet, as the old maxim goes, you cannot please all the people all the time. And that also applies to rabbis.

It even applies, by the way, to our greatest teacher. Moshe Rabbeinu, you might say, was at the peak of his career in Parashat Yitro. He ascends Mt. Sinai to confer face-to-face with the Qodesh Barukh Hu, and takes dictation, beginning with the Aseret HaDibberot / Ten Utterances (usually referred to as the “Ten Commandments”).

And yet, Moshe fails. What happens while he’s up on the mountain, acquiring a radiant glow in the presence of God? The people doubt him. They worry. They think he’s never coming back. “This Moshe guy,” they say, “we don’t know where he went!” (Ex. 32:1, roughly). And then they build an idol. So not only has Moshe failed to deliver the monotheistic goods, but he also fails so badly that the Israelites actually do the opposite of what Moshe is about to teach them when he comes down the mountain.

And, to make matters worse, when he finds out, Moshe loses his cool. He “goes ballistic” as he smashes the tablets.

I am certain that many of us have had that Molten Calf moment, when we think things are going so well, and then everything seems to come crashing down around us. I find this passage consoling when facing my own moments of doubt.

After a year and a half of progress, I feel that together we have made Beth Shalom a more inclusive environment, a more friendly and civil place. And we have accomplished many community-building initiatives.

And yet, we still have to avoid getting sucked into that Molten Calf dynamic as a congregation. We have to agree to disagree respectfully when there are complex political issues. We have to work together to prevent rumors and anxiety from dragging us down, and instead focus on seeking the greater benefit to the community. We have to continue to work together, understanding that none of us is perfect, that we will occasionally fail to meet our objectives, that although the overall trajectory has been positive, there will sometimes be temporary setbacks.

Rather than smashing the tablets, we have to instead do what we did this morning as we read the Aseret HaDibberot: stand together as a community in solidarity, as if gathered at Mt. Sinai.

There will be contentious issues in committees and on the Board level. There will be arguments over finances. There will be personality clashes between members. And I might occasionally make a decision with which you disagree, or fail to meet your expectations. At these moments especially, we must give each other the benefit of the doubt and trust in good intentions.

These are the challenges that keep rabbis up at night. But we will face them all together, and as long as we keep before us the sense of community, connection, and qedushah, we will continue to build.  It is in remembering what unites us that we will find the holiness of our intentions, illuminating the respectful way forward as we stand together.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/19/2017.)

 

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